Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2007
“Those closest to the Murphys found it almost impossible to describe the special quality of their life, or the charm it had for their friends. They were utterly captivating.”
- Calvin Tomkins, Living Well Is the Best Revenge
Villa America is a piece of theatre manufactured for a specific purpose. Instead of being the result of an artist’s inspiration that a story was so compelling that it cried out to be brought to the stage, this is the result of an artist being hired and paid to write on a topic in which he otherwise wouldn’t have had an interest. I write both ways, and I can tell you which method produces the more vivid and compelling text.
It happened thusly. The Williams College Museum of Art was mounting an exhibit focusing on Gerald (1888-1964) and Sara (1883-1975) Murphy and their impact on early 20th century art and they needed a show at the Williamstown Theatre Festival to dovetail with it. Quick, find somebody to write a show about the Murphys!
Now this is not a bad idea because Gerald and Sara Murphy were fascinating people who knew lots of fascinating people. Unfortunately what has come to be performed on the Nikos Stage this July is NOT a show about the Murphys. It is a poorly crafted and gratuitous play about Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald (and their unseen wives and mistresses). The "utterly captivating" couple that Tomkins and many others have written about are nowhere to be seen.
Playwright and director Crispin Whittell has made some telling remarks to various interviewers which indicate that this play was a piece of job-work for him, not something he passionately embraces as his own creation. Under those circumstances it is a tragedy and a mystery that he was allowed to direct the show as well as write it.
The play consists of four scenes set in reverse chronological order. The longest (intolerably so, especially as needlessly split here with an intermission) is the second, which takes place in 1926 on the beach at the Murphys’ Villa America in Cap d’Antibes on the French Riviera. For a long stretch of time there is not a Murphy in sight as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald yammer on about drinking, writing, and fucking. They are both very good at the first two – in 1926 Fitzgerald had already published The Great Gatsby and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises was at the printers – but Hemingway has Fitzgerald beat hands down on the third, which leads to a great deal of masculine bravado on both parts, and again Hemingway utterly trashes Fitzgerald.
Again, Whittell has, inexplicably, gone on record as saying he didn’t do too much research, particularly into the characters who weren’t Gerald and Sara Murphy, and in their case it would seem that just about all he did was read Amanda Vaill’s recent joint biography of the couple Everybody Was So Young. (It’s a great book, I highly recommend it.) Which means that he knows less about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Pablo Picasso (who appears only briefly in the third scene as an excuse for the lovely actress who plays Sara to drop her dress and stand gloriously naked in the spotlight for a few moments) than he does about the Murphys, and he doesn’t know much about them... Oy!
I have never wanted to watch a scene in which F. Scott Fitzgerald invited Ernest Hemingway to come into a beachside changing room and give his honest opinion on the size of his (Fitzgerald’s) penis. I do not believe any such encounter could or would have taken place in real life, nor did the scene add anything whatsoever to this play. The fact that Whittell has Hemingway kneel before Fitzgerald “to get a different perspective” so that he appears to be performing fellatio when the two of them are “discovered” by Henriette, the fussy French governess to the Murphy children, is dumb, dumb, dumb. Did I say dumb? DUMB!!
The only piece of good news here is that the cast is considerably better than the material, although all are hampered by it save Charlotte Booker, who plays the widowed Sara Murphy in the first (and best) scene, which takes place on the beach at Easthampton in 1968. She also hilariously plays the aforementioned French governess, Henriette, in the second and third scenes, and makes a very brief appearance in the last as Sara’s mother, Adeline Wiborg, who was by all accounts a formidable woman. Henriette is the only fully fictional character in the play, and by far the most interesting. What would Whittell have produced if he had told the story of a summer at Villa America from her point of view?
After the first scene Jennifer Mudge takes over the role of Sara (she also plays Gerald and Sara’s daughter Honoria in the first scene). Mudge is a beautiful young woman, but not the handsome woman that Sara Murphy was (and the Booker is in that first scene). Whittell seems to feel that Sara’s role in life was to be admired and desired by men and so that is just about all he gives her to do in this play. Mudge does it very well.
Karl Kenzler plays Gerald Murphy. From photos I have seen, Gerald Murphy was both a better looking and more effeminate man than Kenzler manages to be. Considering that the unnamed secret that Gerald harbors is his bisexuality (what, we can talk about penises and oogle naked women but we can’t openly discuss bi- or homosexuality??) this is a drawback. If I hadn’t known that about Gerald Murphy I never would have guessed it from Kenzler’s performance or Whittell’s script.
While I have no clear preconceived notion of F. Scott Fitzgerald, other than that he was a snappy dresser, I can tell you that Nate Corddry isn’t it. When he walked on stage in the first scene I recognized the clothing, but not the man. “That can’t be Fitzgerald,” I said to myself. But it was. And like Sara I wondered why in the world it was his ghost who appeared to her on the beach on the anniversary of Gerald’s death and not her beloved husband’s.
And the less said about David Deblinger’s insipid performance as Pablo Picasso the better. Where is Thom Christopher when you need him?
But hooray, hooray for Matthew Bomer, who made Hemingway so very, very interesting and sexy – much sexier than the real man at that age, I might add. He can shoot me a fish any day. How did he do it? Well, in an interview with Jennifer Huberdeau in the North Adams Transcript he is quoted as saying: “To prepare, I read two biographies and read everything he had written up to that age except for a few short stories. I've done all my homework...” What a smart young man! To bad Whittell didn’t have the same dedication to this project
The play is performed on a single beach set designed by Mimi Lein. When I got bored I watched the actors’ feet as they padded around to see if they left footprints in the sand, which they didn’t always, meaning that there wasn’t much real sand on the stage. Some of the costumes by Emily Pepper are frankly bizarre. Why is Fitzgerald in drag as Pocahontas for much of the second scene? (Yes, I understand that there was a costume party the night before, but Pocahontas??) Why is Hemingway in cut-offs? Why isn’t Sara wearing underwear or a bathing suit under her dress in scene three?
The Murphys were devoted to their children, who we never see in this play, and the tragically young deaths of their two sons, coupled with the financial disaster of the 1929 crash, brought an end to their halcyon days at Villa America. But their marriage, which Whittell paints as so fragile, endured for 48 years, until Gerald’s death in 1964. I don’t believe for a minute that Sara Wiborg Murphy was a woman who measured her life by the number of men, famous and infamous, who were attracted to her. I think that the secret to living well which the Murphys discovered was the simple and basic truth that family is what matters – out of it springs all beauty, art, and happiness.
If you are interested in learning about Gerald and Sarah Murphy, I advise you to stay far, far away from the Nikos Stage. Get a hold of Vaill or Tomkins’ biography, pay a visit to the Williams College Museum of Art (the show is up through November 11 and admission is free), and read the many fascinating interviews that have been conducted with Curator Deborah Rothschild (I am sure that her catalog for the exhibit is a good read as well.) If you then find yourself fascinated by The Lost Generation there is plenty of great literature, biography and autobiography, and art for you to immerse yourself in. And maybe then one of you will be inspired to write a decent play about the Murphys. If you do, please invite me to see it.
Villa America runs through July 22 on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs two hours with one intermission and contains brief nudity and a little rough language. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007